If you gather a group of people together and say, “I’d like you to raise your hand if you have either been through a divorce yourself, or had someone you love very much go through one,” most people will raise their hands.
This is where we are. Divorce, to each of us, including me, is not a concept to sit back and simply think about as a mere concept. It’s not just something that we develop a “position on” and then move on from. Divorce is about flesh and blood people that we dearly love.
Let’s look now at what Jesus has to say about divorce. Jesus might call you to do some challenging and scary things, but when he calls us to bear a cross—to come and die—he always promises a resurrection. Let’s first take a look at what he says about divorce:
"Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matt. 19:1-12)
Ok. Lets talk about what’s going on here.
1. Marriage is a lifelong covenant. Divorce is a concession.
There are two things you need to know about what’s happening in that passage. First, a theological controversy was happening in Jesus’ day. In Deut. 24, Moses wrote down God’s laws concerning divorce. Here, God’s not saying, “Here are the grounds for divorce.” He’s actually assuming that it’s already happening. What you find is a concession. In other words, it is God looking at a broken, sinful, hard-hearted people who are already divorcing, and he’s putting laws in place that help keep things civil among his people who are divorcing each other.
Rabbis disagreed over this passage. They debated about what is considered a command, what was intended, what’s a concession, etc. One thought that you could only divorce on the grounds of sexual infidelity; the other thought that something as minor as burning a loaf of bread was ground for divorce. Seriously.
The second piece comes up in Mark 6:17-18. Herod, who is the Roman king of Judea, divorced his wife so he could marry his brother’s wife. John the Baptist spoke out about this, telling Herod that it was not lawful for him to marry his brother’s wife. Because of that, Herod beheaded John. This encounter in Mark 6 happened in Judea, right in Herod’s backyard. The Pharisees ask Jesus about his interpretation of Deuteronomy 24—which school did he belong to? He instead took them to Creation, taking them away from a concession to a command. He reminds them that marriage is a covenant, a lifelong commitment. Man cannot separate what God brought together as one flesh.
But what about that exception clause?
2. God’s heart is for reckless grace and forgiveness.
We tend look at the Bible as a rule book, as a book of do’s and don’ts, instead of the revelation of God—one whole book that goes from beginning to end. It’s not mainly about you and me; it’s mainly about God’s character and his work of love in saving us. This makes a vast difference in the way you understand what has famously been referred to as scholars and theologians “exception clause.”
So in Matt 19:9, Jesus replies to the Pharisees: “Whoever divorces his wife (except for sexual immorality) and remarries commits adultery.” Now, on one hand, I can take that verse at face value. I can say, “Well, here we go. Jesus gives this one exception allowing for divorce so if my spouse commits any sort of sexual immorality, then I have permission to divorce from Jesus.” But look at the very next verse. The disciples look at Jesus and say, “Whoa, if that’s the case, Jesus—why would anybody get married?” In other words, “Jesus, you are taking a position that’s even more conservative than what the conservative Rabbis say. We haven’t heard this yet.”
Jesus comes back and says, “Not everybody can receive this; only some to whom it’s given.” And he goes on to explain how God calls many people to not marry, and that is perfectly good, God-honoring way to live. So what exactly is Jesus saying about the exception clause?
Well, if you read the Bible as God intends as a revelation of who he is—and not as the Pharisees read it, as a list of rules and do’s and don’ts—then you’ll notice something: the chapter before this, Jesus tells Peter that forgiveness is unending and never expires. Then he tells this story that communicates the idea if you understand how much God has forgiven you, it will become a sort of natural reflex to forgive others. Then there is the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Prodigal means “reckless” or “wasteful”. Indeed, the son in that story is reckless with his father’s relationship and resources, but even more so, the Father is reckless with his grace toward his son when he welcomes him back and throws a party to celebrate his resurrection of sorts. The Pharisees who heard this story would have seen the Father’s grace as even more reckless and wasteful than the son’s sin. In other words, this is the story of Prodigal Father.
Jesus roots our forgiveness of others—including our spouses—in God’s reckless forgiveness of us. In other words, I will be able to recklessly forgive others to the degree I realize exactly how recklessly God has forgiven me.
Now, carry that into the exception clause. And let’s not look at this like a Pharisee, but like Jesus. God’s heart is for grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It’s not to give you a reason to divorce. There is no such thing as an innocent party in a marriage. We all want to be declared not guilty and have our spouse be the one responsible to change. But if your marriage is hurting, if its on the brink because of the covenant you have, your calling is not to look at your spouse and point out the things they need to do to keep you—that’s a contract. Love that reflects God’s love isn’t a contract; it’s a covenant.
So Jesus is not giving “permission” to divorce in every case of adultery at any time you choose. It is crystal clear that God’s heart is for grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. That’s what the whole Bible is revealing.
When should you forgive? According to Jesus, constantly and unendingly. So adultery and other forms of heinous sin are not a reason to run away from your marriage. The exception clause is not a way to hold sin over your spouse’s head. Forgiveness is hard, reconciliation is hard—but it should be our knee-jerk response. Covenant, not contract.
So what does Jesus mean when he says this?
3. Sin brings death to marriage sometimes.
Another big theme that you find running all through out the Bible is that our sin, our adultery against God breaks us, and it brings death to our relationship with God. If you read the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, this theme is strong. They show God as a faithful, loving husband and Israel as cheating bride. Not just a one-time cheater—a serial cheater. Absolutely sold out to other lovers. In fact, in Jeremiah 3:8, the Lord says to Jeremiah, “… for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.”
So the picture that we get when we look at the big picture of God’s character in Scripture is patience…forgiveness…reconciliation. And in the cases where God talks about his own divorce of his people, it’s in the context of letting them go to other lovers that they have over and over and over committed themselves to.
Now, let me show you one more passage in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul is writing to a letter to a church in the city of Corinth. And this church is pretty messed up. I mean, at one point Paul has to tell them that it’s not OK for a guy to be sleeping with his step-mother. So, the moral compass is just a shade off of true North for this bunch.
That’s the context for 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:
"To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife."
When he says “not I, but the Lord” he is saying, “I’m telling you what Jesus said.” In other words, Paul is looking back here on what we looked at in Matthew 19. And he says, “Jesus told you that marriage is for life.” Now look what he says next.
"To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him." (1 Cor. 7:12-13)
Paul says, “Jesus didn’t say this, but you need to understand this is true.” If you are a Christian, and your spouse is not, stay married. Because as you faithfully love and worship God, he will use you to influence your spouse. Then he goes on to say that if you have a spouse who leaves or abandons you, you can let them go. And you are not enslaved. In other words, you are released as if that spouse has died.
So you are free to remarry, but understand that in the same part of this letter, Paul also says, “Its best not to remarry.” He doesn’t command it, but he gives this robust argument for remaining single.
So when is it OK to walk away from a marriage? First of all, it’s never “OK.” It hurts. It’s painful. It breaks you. It breaks the kids involved in a deep and profound way. Divorce is not like taking a broken TV back to Best Buy—it’s more like the amputation of a limb. Even in cases where amputation is absolutely necessary, I don’t think you ever want the doctor to coldly look at you and say, “I think amputation is OK.” You want him to say, “This is going to be difficult and painful…but in this case, it seems like our only resort.”
Divorce is a last resort. Again, divorce doesn’t “fix” anything. It breaks. It hurts. Every effort on your part should be made to reconcile and forgive. Your grace toward your spouse should be reckless. But, in the event you have a spouse who is bent on giving themselves away sexually to other people, or who walks away from you, or who constantly abuses you without repentance at any turn, I think you have something that fits into the exception clause from Matthew 19 or 1 Corinthians 7. In those cases, sin has killed the marriage. And I think you would be free to divorce and remarry.
If you’ve been divorced, remember that God loves you so much he died for you. He absolutely has poured out his reckless grace for you, too. And because he has forgiven you, you don’t walk around with a scarlet letter, you do not have to live in some alternate Christian universe where you are a little less than everyone else. If anyone is in Christ, they are a New Creation. Brand new.
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